Cultural Diversity at Work: How Things Are Changing

Cultural diversity at work has become a battleground for innovation in organizations large and small. Don’t miss key insights from Stephen Palacios, who’s been conducting research on the topic for the last 15 years.

Stephen has particularly deep experience in the multicultural space and leads that practice at Lieberman Research Worldwide (LRW.) He also has extensive experience in brand positioning and brand strategy development. He is a national speaker, and has been an editorial contributor to AdAge and HuffingtonPost. His work has been cited in the NYTimes, LATimes, Financial Times, ABC, PBS and many other programs and publications. We appreciate the fact that for the last several years, Stephen has been working with women’s publications such as Essence and People En Español to better understand professional, multicultural women. So, when it comes to cultural diversity at work, he has a lot to share.

Stephen Palacios, general manager and VP at Lieberman Research Worldwide sheds insights on cultural diversity at work

Stephen Palacios, general manager and VP at Lieberman Research Worldwide sheds insights on cultural diversity at work

Recent studies around cultural diversity at work

You’ve recently finished two major studies related to cultural diversity at work. Could you explain what they were centered around?

Working with Essence and with People En Español, both studies focused on African American Women at Work and Latinas at Work, respectively. These studies were the vision of Essence’s Michelle Ebanks and People En Español’s Monique Manso.

Understanding cultural diversity at work means learning to navigate conflicting priorities for each individual in your team.

Understanding cultural diversity at work means learning to navigate conflicting priorities for each individual in your team.

What were some of your biggest “aha” moments? Particularly in reference to cultural diversity at work?

Each study highlighted how significant the role of ethnic identity was in the workplace, for both the individual and her workplace non-ethnic counterparts. Both African American and Latinas have to contend with perceptions of their ethnicities. Whether it be trying to avoid being labeled an “angry Black woman” yet still being heard for an African American woman, or avoiding being seen as over sensualized for both Latinas and African American women, these stereotypes found in popular culture affect workplace dynamics for many ethnic women. Each study went into some depth on workplace communication styles, dress, cosmetics, and other factors of demeanor and appearance that were actively or less consciously being used to navigate cultural identity with workplace identity.

Don't miss "What Is Cultural Diversity?" to learn much more about this topic!

How are cultural norms changing for Latinas and how is this shift affecting them?

The biggest cultural norm shift for Latinas, as found in several Hispanic Opinion Tracker (HOT) Studies by People En Español, is the drive toward careerism. Latinas are obtaining higher education at unprecedented levels, and are entering the workforce with high expectations and ambitions. Their self stated priorities are shifting, as they see career in a more important light, even when compared to traditional roles of wife/mother. This shift is paradoxically creating tremendous optimism on what is possible but also creating cultural tension with their mothers and significant others. Latinas are coming into their own, and are finding it challenging to reconcile their ambition with their traditions.

How about African American women?  

African American women have been leading the charge on women’s issues in the labor force for over 40 years. Their workforce penetration, head of household status and educational achievement have always been lead indicators for women in the U.S. Having said this, they too have rising expectations on success in the workplace, with greater expectations of being their “authentic selves” at work. Expressions of cultural identity such as natural hair, style and more are coming to the fore more often. Black women, especially Millennials, are looking to have their identity recognized and valued more by their place of employment and their fellow employees.

What you need to know about Cultural Diversity Training. Does it work?
It's critical to understand cultural diversity norm shifts to support your team.

It’s critical to understand cultural diversity norm shifts to support your team.

Recommendations around cultural diversity at work

Do you have any recommendations to increase sensitivity towards cultural diversity at work? Mainly when it pertains to women of diverse backgrounds?

Employers would benefit greatly by understanding the cultural dynamics and tensions associated with their Black and Latina employees. Essence found 4 dominant communication styles for Black women at work in the study, each of which led to greater potential for retention and advancement, or not. Black women who understand these communication styles can better identify their personal approach to workplace dynamics. It is equally important that non-Hispanic White employees/employers to be aware of these styles as well. For so many non-Hispanic Whites, the issue of ethnic identity is rarely a factor of consideration in inter-office communication or office culture building – it needs to be.

Any suggestions on how employers can better engage multicultural women?

Start by reading these studies! They are (all modestly aside) insightful, comprehensive, but practical in their use. For non-Hispanic White employers/employees understanding the cultural identity better, devising strategies to celebrate the contribution ethnic employees can make, and incorporating this into an overall office culture is increasingly important. Particularly for those hiring Millennials, and for those in certain industries, e.g. Healthcare.

You can follow LRW on Twitter

More insights from the HOT study on Latinas.

Beyond the Traditional Executive Presence Definition

Quite often, the standards for promotion of diverse talent are stricter than for the average employee. Expanding the traditional executive presence definition will help you grow your organization’s brain.

In this article we will cover the definition of executive presence and the impact this traditional executive presence definition has on diversity talent, particularly in women.

Myrna, a highly educated Latina professional, with impressive credentials and a track record of accomplishments, was in a career development path but was denied the opportunity to move to the next level because “she didn’t have executive presence.” This is a true story (although I changed the name of the protagonist to respect her privacy) and one that many people with diverse backgrounds can relate to.

white men and white woman in suits

We need to expand the narrow executive presence definition to allow for a diversity of gender, backgrounds and styles

The truth is that the real reason for which Myrna wasn’t offered the promotion was the fact that she was assessed against the outdated standards of the executive presence definition. Her merits and accomplishments were never questioned, only the fact that she displayed executive presence in a different way than expected. The outcome of her assessment was that she did not meet the conventional criteria to be considered “leadership material,” that she lacked “leadership presence,” the “It” factor, or the “je ne sais quoi” needed to be promoted to the next level.

As a result of her performance review Myrna received “another” chance to earn her promotion, but not surprisingly, “the chance” had nothing to do with addressing her leadership presence or with a suggestion that she went to executive presence training. The standards for her promotion were stricter than for the average employee in the organization. Myrna was given a series of challenging projects to prove herself again-and-again and demonstrate that she was worthy of the next level, which always seemed to be one additional challenge away.

Executive Presence pillars

Executive Presence pillars

In a study conducted by The Center for Talent Innovation 268 senior executive participants said executive presence contributed 26% to career advancement. One of their conclusions was that executive presence is the link between merit and success.

The Three Pillars of Executive Presence

This research suggests that there are three pillars of executive presence:

Communication: How we share information

Appearance: How we look

Gravitas: How we impress others.

As simple as these three pillars sound, they show up very differently depending on the lens you use to evaluate a person.

Let’s take a look at how communication, appearance, and gravitas show up in high and low context cultures. (“High” and “Low” refers to communication styles, while “Context” refers to how circumstances or facts are explained during communication.) For example, in high context cultures –Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America— messages are communicated indirectly and implicitly with metaphors, analogies, and symbols. In low context cultures —United States, Canada Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland for instance— communication is more direct, concise, and explicit with frequent use of facts and specific examples.

Hand holding colored gears

Look at your talent through a diversity lens

In a high context culture communication styles are notably different than the styles of people from a low context culture. Africans can feel that the Dutch insult their intelligence by explaining the obvious, while the Dutch can feel that African leaders provide no information. In Myrna’s case, the American executives responsible for approving her promotion found Myrna to be secretive and unforthcoming with information while Myrna found the American executives to be offensively blunt. These examples only highlight the element of communication and culture. We are not yet discussing how the addition of other diverse characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, or age could further influence how a person’s communication impacts their executive presence.

The combination of diverse traits makes precise recognition and evaluation of the three executive presence pillars (communication, appearance, and gravitas) even harder. The traditional and narrow executive presence definition does not allow for the diversity lens to be applied to these three pillars.

Effective global leaders, however, are keenly aware of the complexity of these assessments, the need to use a diversity lens, and the importance of avoiding generalizations.

They redefine executive presence, champion diverse expression of leadership presence, and provide everyone a fair chance to be promoted based on how their authentic self contributes to the business objectives.

A couple of these effective global leaders were the ones that championed and coached Myrna, helping her get to the next level. These leaders were willing and able to see beyond the obvious, understand, and reward Myrna’s genuine executive presence.

Don't miss our Executive Presence Quiz, ideal to use with your women employees.

How to embrace an updated executive presence definition

How could you become one of these effective leaders with an uncanny ability to spot executive presence by transcending the narrow definition that keeps top talent out of the leadership track? Well, there are several actions you can take to objectively assess people’s leadership potential, honoring their uniqueness while enriching the thinking power of the organization.

Effective global leaders are fully aware of the need to use a diversity lens when assessing executive presence

Executive presence quote by Lily Benjamin

  • Provide constructive feedback. Build people by focusing on their strengths. Discuss what is working and what could be adjusted. For instance, “You have a very effective way of commanding the room (Gravitas) – give a specific example. During the presentation to the senior management group, last Friday, however, your report was too generic (Communication.) Unfortunately, that came across as though you had not done your homework or as if you didn’t want to provide specific information. This made you seem aloof to the needs of the audience and out of touch. Also, next time you have a meeting with this group, dress up more formally – a suit will work better with this audience (Appearance.) The combination of providing the correct and necessary information, while being dressed more on par for this audience, will enhance your executive presence and will help them connect with you.”
  • Provide executive sponsorship. Be the agent of your top talent. Talk about their strengths when they are in or out of the room. Highlight the value they add to the teams and the organization. Humanize them by sharing unique, valuable and relatable traits. Provide strategic public recognition. This means, ensure that in public settings this person gets appropriately praised for their merits and executive presence. Be their biggest Champion. Give others the language or qualifiers you want your talent’s brand to be remembered by. For example, “Myrna is a very influential and effective leader. She is credible and reliable. I trust her to do things right in any sensitive situation.”
  • Demystify the traditional (and very narrow) executive presence definition. A good way to spot authentic executive presence, regardless of diverse backgrounds, is to distinguish between myths and facts. Be mindful of the facts that can transcend any diverse element. By that I mean tangible diverse elements such as gender, sexual orientation, age, race, etc. or intangible elements such as diversity of thoughts, and diversity of styles in areas such as learning, communication, decision making, conflict resolutions, and so on. Below find a few myths and facts on executive presence.

Executive Presence



Bold: Shows a strong demeanor, vivid appearance, and ability to take risks Confidence: Is self-assured, calm, composed, with grace under fire
Vocal: Expresses opinions or feelings freely and emphatically, drawing people’s attention Clear Communicator: Shares substantive information, with great foresight, engaging and motivating people into action
Self-promoter: Publicizes self in a compelling and persuasive way Credible: Is authentic and persuades people, also ensuring that others get credit
Sophisticated: Demonstrates knowledge on and ability to discuss complex issues with ease Emotionally Intelligent: Is aware of, can control, and express emotions. Leads from the heart and head with empathy
Popular: Is liked, admired, accepted by many people, based on skills or knowledge Outstanding Reputation: Is known for her character, trustworthiness, and track record of accomplishments
Commanding: Expresses and projects authority, imposing points of view Assertive: Speaks up, expressing and owning feelings and opinions openly
Tenacious: Is determined and holds on firmly to positions and courses of action Courageous: Is not deterred by consequences of protecting principles and shared goals
The RSM Step Up Plus helps develop diverse women year-round.

Let's broaden the executive presence definition! In order to diversify your executive levels you must expand the narrow executive presence definition

In order to diversify your executive levels you must expand the narrow executive presence definition

After being coached and championed, Myrna learned to communicate and use her strategic authentic-self more effectively, which strengthened her professional brand. A year later, she was able to turn her “naysayers” into “yea-sayers.” The leader that had denied her promotion became her biggest champion, seeing beyond Myrna’s cultural mannerisms and focusing on her contributions instead. Myrna now heads up a global function in a Fortune 500 company.

Cracking the code on how to spot executive presence regardless of your talent’s background will allow you to rip the benefits of their full potential. Most importantly, it will help you ensure that the organization leverages a vast diversity of thought to transform and grow.


Old Tactics for Retaining Talent Don’t Work Anymore

If you want the definitive answer to retaining talent, you must figure out how to engage employees. Read about the consequences and how to avoid them.

Jess (40) had been working for many years in sales and marketing at several large communications companies. It was interesting meeting people and attending networking events, and to tell you the truth, she was pretty good at it. But love it? She did not.

Awesome Mondays. I love my job. It's Monday Quote

A great way to know you have engaged employees is finding out how much they love Mondays.

In the past she had turned down offers for promotions because she didn’t want the added responsibilities. Her last job, a large bilingual media platform, was no different. Intent on retaining talent, her boss felt lost at her refusal when he offered her a promotion that came with a substantial salary increase. He knew that rule number one in the “how to engage employees” manual was to offer them growth opportunities. So here he was, doing what he was expected to do and failing miserably at retaining a kind of expertise that was hard to come by. What was the problem?

Nowadays retaining talent involves much more than following traditional rules

Yup. The old rules don’t apply any more. If you’re really interested in engaged employees that lead to retaining talent, and particularly women and people with diverse backgrounds, you have to look beyond the obvious. (You can also read What is Employee Engagement.) Throwing around what may seem to you, as a “great promotion” or a “wonderful growth opportunity” is not how to engage employees effectively. Why? Because if Jess is not interested in sales and marketing, she will probably have no inclination to invest emotional and intellectual resources in that field. She’ll probably do what she needs to get by, or even to reach middle management. But that’s it. If she doesn’t find a modicum of honest interest in the space, she won’t go as far as you envision her going.

The question is: Should her boss continue to fund sales and marketing courses for Jess in hopes of turning her around? Or should he rather find out what excites her so he can help accelerate her career growth in a different area? The latter is much likelier to result in retaining the talent you can’t afford to lose.

Racing in sneakers? Anybody can do that. Ways to engage employees and retain talent. Read on!

If retaining talent is at the top of your list, start by valuing the talent of your female employees.

Here’s what happened with Jess — When the “how to engage talent” question is ignored.

Unhappy at work and not sure what to do about it, Jess attended a few Red Shoe Movement Signature events in search for what interested her. She participated in our mutual mentoring circles and used the occasion to explore her motivations and aspirations. It wasn’t long before she realized she wanted to be a lawyer. She would still love to work in the communications industry but not in the sales or marketing functions. So she went back to school while holding a part time job in the communications department of a small law firm. She also signed up for the RSM Step Up Program so she could continue to strengthen her soft and hard skills.

Fuel Your Employees Career Growth

RSM Step Up Plus
Fuel Your Employees Career Growth

Could this outcome have been avoided?

Well, when it comes to Jess going back to school to seek a law degree at 40, that’s obviously something she needed to do. What could’ve been avoided is for her organization to lose her in the process. They could’ve offered her a part time job in the company’s legal department while she finished school. And once she passed the bar exam, she could have rejoined her company as a full-time lawyer.

The way things worked out, several companies lost the chance of retaining employees as valuable as Jess’ for sticking to a book of rules that no longer applies.

Cultural Diversity Training in the Workplace: Is it Achievable?

Nobody benefits when cultural diversity training is associated with punishment for something that went wrong in your organization.

Hearing some people’s ideas on cultural diversity training can be disheartening. Some people think this kind of training achieves the opposite of the desired effect by focusing on differences rather than on commonalities. Others believe it offers a forum to lash out against white people. It’s difficult — if not altogether impossible— to get everyone to agree that there are benefits to cultural diversity training.

Cultural diversity training is not a program where you teach white employees how to avoid offending African Americans or Latinos.

Our take is that the main reason why cultural diversity training has such a conflicting reputation is because many organizations remember the need for cultural sensitivity too late— When they’ve been sued or when a big scandal hits the front pages of the New York Times. Naturally, damage control will never be as effective as integrating cultural diversity training into your strategic priorities.

Cultural diversity is an advantage. Don't wait until something goes wrong to offer culture diversity training. Integrate diversity and inclusion into your organization's strategic priorities.

Don’t wait until something goes wrong to offer culture diversity training. Integrate diversity and inclusion into your organization’s strategic priorities.

What cultural diversity training is not

When we talk about cultural diversity, we not only refer to ethnicity and race but also to a wide range of characteristics that make up a particular culture: age, gender, religion, ability level, physical condition, profession, education, and so on. What’s interesting is that when you look at culture this way, you quickly realize that cultural diversity training is not a program where you teach white employees how to avoid offending African Americans or Latinos. It’s more about everyone learning to identify cultural differences in the workplace in order to respect them and capitalize on the advantages of working in a culturally rich environment.

Making everyone feel valued is a stepping stone to becoming more culturally sensitive

Rather than conducting sporadic cultural diversity training in your organization, it would be much more effective to stimulate a culture of ongoing curiosity.

The Red Shoe Movement’s programs and engaging methodology fosters the creation of a more culturally diverse workforce and leadership pipeline.

We see the effects of this approach in our Red Shoe Movement programs. Participants of very different backgrounds interact with each other in an environment that fosters honest conversations about what’s important to each person. In addition, our methodology helps participants recognize what they have to contribute as individuals. As a result, they feel their value reaffirmed – a much-needed step to accepting cultural differences in others.

By recognizing that they have something distinctive to offer their colleagues, people are more likely to accept that others have something unique to offer as well. In turn, this awareness enables people to establish relationships with those who are unlike themselves. It’s by virtue of these individual relationships that it becomes easier to overcome stereotypes.

To truly embrace diversity and inclusion in your organization, you must foster a culture of curiosity and recognize the value that each employee brings to the table. Photo Credit: Picture taken by Bonnie Pfister at Vibrant Pittsburgh event

To truly embrace diversity and inclusion in your organization, you must foster a culture of curiosity and recognize the value that each employee brings to the table. Photo Credit: Picture taken by Bonnie Pfister at Vibrant Pittsburgh event

Valuing cultural diversity takes building relationships

You know how it goes. People say they “hate Muslims, Latinos, Jews,” you name it, but they love their Muslim friend Joe or their Latino neighbor who takes care of their kids.

It’s easier to hate an abstract concept. Once that concept becomes a person with whom you interact and with whom you have several things in common, it becomes harder to hate them.

When people recognize what makes them unique, they can also recognize that in others. Photo Credit: Picture taken at a Red Shoe Movement Kroger training

When people recognize what makes them unique, they can also recognize that in others.
Photo Credit: Picture taken at a Red Shoe Movement Kroger training

Yet, the only way to turn an abstract idea into a relatable person is to offer opportunities for people to interact and get to know each other in a non-threatening environment where they can appreciate each other’s unique qualities, habits, values and traditions. It is quite hard to achieve this level of understanding with only occasional cultural diversity training.

Cultural diversity as an advantage rather than a mandate

The only way in which you can achieve long-lasting, authentic acceptance is by approaching cultural diversity as the fabulous advantage it is rather than as a mandate. Many studies show the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace on an organization’s bottom line and work environment. Without a doubt, making your organization a place that welcomes all kinds of cultures should be a strategic priority in a global economy.

Red Shoe Movement event: The Red Shoe Movement methodology focuses on offering people from diverse backgrounds opportunities to interact and learn from one another

The Red Shoe Movement methodology focuses on offering people from diverse backgrounds opportunities to interact and learn from one another. Red Shoe Movement Event.

In this regard, we’ve seen how the Red Shoe Movement’s engaging methodology fosters the creation of a more culturally diverse workforce and leadership pipeline. Our approach of nurturing diverse talent to flourish in their careers is sustained in the long run by the global grassroots movement with which they engage. This has the effect of putting individuals (mostly women) in the driver’s seat of their careers. Their own motivation drives their growth, which is always more effective than trying to accelerate their growth with external efforts.

When you envision a culturally diverse organization, opting for cultural diversity training is probably not the way to go. Instead, you may want to consider ways to infuse curiosity about others into your organization. Your employees will embrace their multicultural workplace, and they will soon come to see it as a major competitive advantage that the organization can’t live without.

Diversity in the Workplace: Rethinking ERGs

What’s working and what’s not with diversity in the workplace. Do ERGs offer the kind of visibility that leads to career success? A must read.

In a recent conversation at an iconic Miami bookstore, the head of diversity at a large financial organization complained of the low level of attendance at the events put together by her Women’s Network. “It doesn’t matter what time or day of the week we do it, we can’t get over twenty five people. The largest attendance we’ve had recently was about forty people who showed up for a Yoga class,” she reported.

Diversity in the workplace and Career Success

Diversity in the workplace and Career Success

Unfortunately, it’s a complaint I’ve been hearing all too often. It begs the question: Have the Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), also known as Business Resource Groups (BRGs), Affinity Groups, Employee Networks, Diversity Councils, and so on, outlived their purpose?  Or is it that their members can’t see the value proposition so clearly anymore because some of these groups have been slow to adjust to the new needs of diversity in the workplace?

Diversity in the workplace: What’s working and what’s not

Here’s what I think is happening. Many of the ERGs were started to provide a platform for people with diverse backgrounds to share their experience in corporations where they were in the minority. They offered a space to network and gain a certain amount of visibility within the organization.  In companies where the groups afford opportunities to get noticed and potentially land sought-after positions, the ERGs are doing well. But in organizations that offer limited occasions for members to gain the kind of visibility that leads to career success, members quickly lose interest. In addition, when a specific demographic—such as women— reaches a large percentage of a company’s employee roster yet the percentage at the highest-ranking levels remains unchanged, frustration sets in and engagement and participation drop substantially.

In the last few years there’s been a shift towards Business Resource Groups (BRGs) as a way to refocus ERGs into bringing measurable value to their organizations and their membership. They were repurposed to help marketing identify potential consumer segments where various BRGs might have specific insights, to help develop products, and to participate more actively in increasing diversity in the workplace whether that entails helping recruit diverse talent or expand supplier diversity. Many BRGs currently make a major impact in their companies while at the same time offering a seat at the table to their most active members. (Needless to say that these groups have no problem driving attendance to their events.)  On the other hand, those ERGs whose goals haven’t yet aligned with the career success of their members and the bottom line of their companies have seen their membership interest wane and their budgets cut.

What can you do to bring the groove back to your ERGs? Diversity in the workplace at its best

There’s no magic formula to increase engagement in your ERGs or attendance at the events they organize, but there are a few things that seem to work well for many organizations

  1. Get senior executives to sponsor the group and to show up and STAY at the events. It sends a poor signal when executives give the opening remarks and then leave. If you have to schedule your events around your sponsor, so be it.
  2. Invite executives from various areas of the company to your events so your members can network with them. It makes your occasion that much more attractive when members know they’ll be able to mingle with higher ups.

    Diversity in the workplace and its relationship to career success

    Diversity in the workplace and its relationship to career success

  3. If your ERGs haven’t yet set goals beyond networking, guide them through the process. What other value can they offer to their members in terms of career success? How can the ERG open doors to diverse talent? How can they impact the company’s bottom line? How will they measure their achievements?
  4. Seek partnerships with ERGs of other companies in your industry or in complimentary ones. In recent years, cities like Chicago and New York have seen the emergence of strong coalitions of ERGs (such as the Latino Networks Coalition) that work together to achieve common goals such as increasing the number of students in STEM or improving partnerships between financial corporations and the education system. In addition, these coalitions leverage each other’s distribution list to drive higher attendance to their events.
  5. Link the goals and outcomes of your ERGs to the overall goals of your company to make them more attractive (and indispensable) for all stakeholders.

So if you’re seeking to increase the career success of your diverse talent you might want to rethink the value that your BRGs are offering to its members. Answering these questions might help you pinpoint trouble areas: Do the BRGs offer enough visibility opportunities for its most active members? Are they really valued within the organization at large? Are they working as isolated silos or are they cooperating with other BRGs within your organization and outside of it? Are they ROI driven?

A sustainable, measurable way to attract, engage and promote your talent.

A sustainable, measurable way to attract, engage and promote your talent.